A Guide to Growing Espalier Fruit Trees

A Guide to Growing Espalier Fruit Trees

What is an espalier?

An espalier is a form of trained fruit tree, pruned to grow flat against a fence, wall or trellis. Traditionally it has a main central stem, and then horizontal branches which are trained to form 'tiers'. The ultimate number of tiers is governed only by the size of the wall, and the vigour of the rootstock on which the tree has been grafted. The word espalier is derived from the Italian spalliera, meaning something to rest your shoulder against. Originally this referred to the support used to train the tree against, but is now generally used for the tree itself. The technique of training trees in a two-dimensional from is ancient- its thought that it started with the Romans. Over the past 300 years it has been widely adopted in Europe, and there are many fine trees gracing the walls of stately homes and estate gardens up and down the country.

A young 3 year old espalier apple with two tiers already formed

Benefits of growing fruit trees in a trained form:

Space-saving - growing fruit trees in a 2 dimensional form takes up a lot less space than a traditional free-standing tree.

Efficient and intensive - by training the branches horizontally the tree puts more of its energy into fruit production, rather than in producing lots of new growth. Also by annual summer pruning (which we'll look at later), you encourage the production of fruiting spurs.

Greenhouse effect - a wall or fence facing south or southwest is ideal, as the tree will benefit from the the full sun. A stone or brick wall acts as a heat sump, absorbing warmth during the day and emitting it at night. This micro-climate can extend the season by several weeks, helping to protect trees from spring frosts and promote better ripening in the autumn.

Decorative - an established espalier tree is a wonderful sight, with displays of spring blossom as well as the fruit in autumn. They also add structure in the winter months.

How to espalier young fruit trees:

You can buy partly-trained espaliers, but the most economical option is to start with a one year old maiden tree. This is basically a single straight stem, normally about 1m or so tall. In the first winter after planting, prune the central leader above three healthy buds at the point at which you want the first horizontal tier to form. In the spring, these three buds will grow away in the direction they are facing - train one to the left, one to the right to form the horizontal tier, and train the uppermost bud vertically to form a new central leader. Repeat this process every winter, adding one new tier to the espalier, until the final desired height is achieved. The distance between horizontal tiers is a matter of personal choice, depending on wall and the support structure dimensions, but generally you should allow 30-40cm between tiers to allow for good air circulation.

By August, side shoots are growing away strongly from the horizontal tier.

Summer pruning espalier fruit trees:

In order to keep the tree in the tightly controlled form, summer pruning in mid-August is essential. Summer pruning contains growth, by removing energy from the plant. In August, once the new growth which has grown away from the permanant horizontal tiers has started to turn from bright green to darker brown wood (a process known as lignification), prune all the new growth back to three leaves. This keeps the espalier in the shape we want, and also encourages productive fruiting spurs to form.

Prune new shoots back to 3 leaves.

After summer pruning.

Choice of best varieties to espalier: 

You can espalier any apple or pear variety. Some varieties will readily produce fruiting spurs, but even varieties which are naturally 'tip-bearing' (so will produce the majority of the crop at the ends of branches if left to their own devices) will respond to the regular summer pruning by producing fruiting spurs. Stone fruit (plums, gages, damsons and cherries) are not recommended for espalier training, due to the way they produce blossom and fruit - instead you can grow them as fan-trained trees, using a slightly different pruning method, and still enjoy all the benefits of a wall-trained fruit tree.

Buying espalier fruit trees from RV Roger Ltd: 

Here at the nursery in north Yorkshire we are one of the few UK growers to train our our trees in the field, using traditional methods. The range we offer is second to none - but they are always in high demand. Our website should show current availability, but if you have any questions on varieties, rootstocks or availability, please email our knowledgeable sales team, we'll be only too happy to help.